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Lynch allegations spark calls for changing toxic restaurant culture

A test chef at America's Test Kitchen uses a microplane to grate parmesan into a bowl for a recipe they are testing. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A test chef at America's Test Kitchen uses a microplane to grate parmesan into a bowl for a recipe they are testing. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It's been a tough, emotional year for Tim Dearing. He's one of more than 20 former employees who recently accused star Boston chef and restaurateur Barbara Lynch of abusive behavior and creating toxic work environments in her kitchens.

The allegations, which Lynch denies, were initially published in the New York Times and Boston Globe, and have raised broader questions about restaurant culture and its impact on workers and their mental health.

For Dearing, the hardest part has been the loss of his best friend and colleague, Rye Crofter.

“He was named Rye because his parents worked at a bakery. It was always ingrained into his life,” Dearing said, “That's how we became really good friends is through food, like punk rock and food.”

Dearing and Crofter were friends for 22 years. They grew up in kitchens, attended the same culinary school, and ultimately worked together at Lynch's high-end Boston establishment Menton. Crofter was executive chef for her restaurant group, and Dearing helped him develop recipes and design menus. Dearing said they both felt burnt out and frustrated with working 12- to 14-hour days in an exacting, high pressure environment.

“And just like the crazy attitudes, the stress," Dearing said. "But we were always trying to figure out a way not to have that.”

Anyone who's worked in a busy restaurant knows kitchens can be pressure cookers. Their intensity has been dramatized in movies and TV series including “The Bear.”

Dearing, who's 38, said a physically and mentally grueling work culture has endured for well over a century. He traced the "yes, chef" pursuit of perfection at all costs back to elite, 20th-century French chefs who ran their kitchens like military brigades.

“It's very hierarchical,” Dearing explained. “It's like, no matter what you take it.”

Tim Dearing in Brighton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Tim Dearing in Brighton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Dearing acknowledges he's had his own angry moments and brash responses in the kitchen. But he recalled how he and Crofter wanted to create healthier ways to communicate. They talked about holding regular “betterment meetings,” so cooks could talk openly about operational and interpersonal issues. But they never got to implement that idea because Crofter died of a fentanyl overdose in January.

Dearing said he and Rye "were recovering alcoholics and addicts," but Dearing has been sober for 11 years and Crofter had been for about eight. So his death "was all a surprise to all of us,” Dearing said, while choking back tears. “And a lot of friends have died from this. Like a lot of people.”

The 35-year-old Crofter's death became a tipping point for Dearing and his colleagues to break their silence about Lynch. They allege she was a neglectful leader who for years was often absent, and when she was present verbally and physically harassed employees. Lynch has called the allegations "fantastical."

Now, Dearing hopes these experiences serve as yet another wake-up call for change across the industry.

“We're not investing in adequate training, we're not providing people with adequate compensation, adequate breaks, we're not providing psychological safety.”

Hassel Aviles

“This conversation does not get enough airtime,” said Hassel Aviles, co-founder of Not 9 to 5, a global nonprofit focused on mental health advocacy in the restaurant and hospitality sector. “It's a deep, dark, painful conversation. And the longer that we don't have it, unfortunately, the more these experiences keep happening.”

Aviles, who is 42, has had her own struggles with anxiety, depression and substance use over 17 years in the industry. In 2021, her organization surveyed more than 600 restaurant professionals and found about 90% reported similar experiences.

“We're not investing in people, we're not investing in adequate training, we're not providing people with adequate compensation, adequate breaks, we're not providing psychological safety,” Aviles said. “So that's why we have such high rates of mental health and substance use challenges.”

During the pandemic, Not 9 to 5 created a mental health hospitality coalition to support workers in crisis with online resources, including addiction recovery tools and information about sobriety support groups. Not 9 to 5, which is based in Toronto, also partnered with organizations such as In the Weeds in Massachusetts, which has raised funds so vulnerable restaurant employees in the state could access low- or no-cost mental health care.

Aviles' latest initiative is a digital certification program designed to help employers learn how to foster emotionally safe work environments in restaurants. She developed it with input from industry peers, including therapists who’ve had restaurant jobs in the past. She said younger workers are more vocal and less tolerant of bad behavior, so she's hopeful about the future. But, Aviles said, unlearning the past will take time and leadership.

"The employer has a responsibility to create a safe workplace for all workers," Aviles said.

Pagu owner Tracy Chang prepares mapo tofu for for a dinner event later that evening. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Pagu owner Tracy Chang prepares mapo tofu for for a dinner event later that evening. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Chef Tracy Chang is trying to do that at Pagu, the Spanish-Japanese tapas restaurant she owns and runs in Cambridge. On a recent afternoon, the 35-year-old’s kitchen staff was busy chopping vegetables and prepping for dinner service. They chatted and smiled but remained focused on their tasks. Chang said she tries to cultivate a positive environment at Pagu.

"This is probably the strongest and most tight knit team I've had in the six years of operation" Chang said.

Some of the steps Chang has taken to improve the culture at her restaurant include flexible schedules for her 30 employees, a shared tip system, and she said she tries to provide room for professional growth and take time to listen to her employees.

"Some of the basic rules are, you know, like treat people like you would want to be treated, do unto others," Chang said. "And just be really kind of patient. Some people have better days and worse days, and you never know what someone's kind of personal situation might be that day."

Chang knows how chaotic restaurants can be. She’s worked at several, including in Europe, and said she knew she wanted to do things differently at her own place. For Chang, a big part of that is establishing boundaries.

Coming up as a chef, she said she witnessed toxic behavior, including abuse and harassment, that often occurred when staff was drinking together. So, Chang made Pagu a “dry restaurant."

"So a dry restaurant is, for us, that the employees and ownership and managers are not drinking at the restaurant before their job, during their job, after their job," Chang said.

But they do play soccer together, Chang said. For her, a healthy, happy staff that feels connected — and valued — is also good for business. There’s less turnover — some of her employees have stayed on since year one.

But to really change restaurant culture, Chang said customers need to care.

"When we decide where we go out to eat, instead of asking like, 'Oh, is this like the most interesting thing I feel like eating tonight?' Shouldn't we also ask, like, 'What are their ethics? What are their practices? Are they paying everyone minimum wage? Are people in the restaurant happy?' You know, maybe that's a good place to support."

And, Chang believes, if the staff is treated well, the food will probably taste better, too.

Pagu owner Tracy Chang sets up the fryolator preparing for a dinner event later that evening. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Pagu owner Tracy Chang sets up the 'fryolator' preparing for a dinner event later that evening. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This segment aired on May 16, 2023.


Andrea Shea Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.


Zeninjor Enwemeka Senior Business Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a senior business reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.



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